You know how it goes. “Bush did x.” “Yes, but Clinton did x, too. I didn’t hear you complain about x then.” “Well, you hated x when Clinton was president, but now that Bush does x, you don’t think it’s so bad.”
At the end of a segment we know that each side hates x in the other guy and ignores it in his own guy. But have we learned anything about x?
The conversation on these shows raises polemics above all else. Dictionary.com defines polemics as “a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.” Refuting or attacking, but not explaining or exploring or understanding.
Polemics is necessary in political argument, but it’s not sufficient. In addition to condemning the bad, we need to understand what we’re fighting for. The emphasis of today’s political argument is not on giving us reasons to value a politician or a cause, but reasons to revile the other side. Can you blame people if they tune politics out? Who cares about two sides pointing a finger at each other?
During the Clinton presidency I was disappointed when The American Spectator shifted its focus from more theoretical pieces to investigative journalism into Clinton’s scandals. “This is what the liberals do,” I thought. “Isn’t conservatism supposed to be about ideas?”
Conservatism was once the side with all the ideas. What ideas one hears still come from the right, but there has been a marked decrease in big ideas in the last 10 years. The last big semi-cause the Republicans fought for was the Contract For America. Tax cuts and war against militant Islam are good ideas, but the ideological arguments for them have been weak and drowned out by liberal campaigns to hobble Bush with scandal.
Conservatives have given up any lip service they used to pay to laissez-faire capitalism. They have accepted the welfare state. They might want a little less government, but none of them seriously advocates radical free market solutions.
Some of the writers at the Weekly Standard tout what they call “national greatness conservatism.” This is the belief that big government is good because it unites the country behind big causes. They make me think of the pyramids of ancient Egypt; yes, they were built by slaves, but those slaves were united!
The other day I caught a few minutes of Hugh Hewitt in the car. He argued that when Curtis LeMay became Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate, he gave a speech that was nutty and went too far. He was called an extremist (and rightly so, says Hewitt). Now Congressman Murtha has had a LeMay moment. He is an extremist.
This was Hewitt’s idea of how to attack Murtha: call him an extremist. In 1964 Ayn Rand wrote an essay called “Extremism, or the Art of Smearing.” The word was used by Republican moderates at the convention that year to attack the John Birch Society (which Rand called “a futile, befuddled organization”). As Rand went on to show, the moderates were really opposed to laissez-faire capitalism. Not much has changed since then, except that now even fewer Republicans advocate radical free market ideas. Would Hewitt be for getting rid of social security or Medicare? I doubt it.
So we have two big government parties fighting over who gets to control the loot they steal from taxpayers. There are no fundamental ideas to argue over.
In ancient Byzantium there were two political factions called the Blues and the Greens.
Blues and Greens, political factions in the Byzantine Empire in the 6th cent. They took their names from two of the four colors worn by the circus charioteers. Their clashes were intensified by religious differences. The Greens represented Monophysitism and the lower classes; the Blues, orthodoxy and the upper classes. In 532 the two factions joined in the Nika revolt against Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora. However, Theodora's resolute stand and the aid of Belisarius and Narses ended the revolt. The factions continued to oppose each other into the 7th cent., but by the 9th cent. they had become mostly ceremonial.The two parties had religious and class differences, but neither had a bright idea as to what Byzantium should do. Neither was interested in the advance of freedom. They were just two gangs fighting for power. The Republicans and Democrats are looking more and more like Blues and Greens.
UPDATE: Thanks to Gus Van Horn for linking to this post.